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CIA honors 12 officers, contractors killed in action

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2010; A03

With a dozen new stars set in white Vermont marble, the CIA on Monday memorialized 12 agency officers and contractors killed in action, including a mother of three from Northern Virginia who was chief of the CIA base struck by a suicide bomber in eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 30.

Jennifer Lynne Matthews, 45, whose name has not previously been made public, was among seven agency operatives slain by an informant who set a trap after claiming to have infiltrated al-Qaeda's innermost circle.

Matthews had been one of the CIA's top experts on al-Qaeda and a veteran targeteer in the agency's air war against terrorist groups. A Fredericksburg resident with three school-age children, she had served for seven months at the helm of a CIA forward operating base in the turbulent Khost province when the attack occurred.

The identities of Mathews and another CIA officer killed in the attack, Darren LaBonte, 35, formerly of Alexandria, had been officially secret until Monday's memorial service. The names of the five others killed at Khost, the deadliest single attack on the spy agency in 25 years, were previously disclosed.

In keeping with a four-decade tradition, agency Director Leon E. Panetta presided over the formal unveiling of the 12 stars on the CIA Memorial Wall at the entrance to the agency's Langley headquarters, according to those present. Panetta lauded the 12 as "heroes" and "silent warriors" who had helped protect the country, even though most Americans would never know exactly how or where they served.

"Whether their names are known to the world or only to us, each cherished colleague remains a constant source of inspiration and courage," he said.

In addition to the seven Americans killed at Khost, the 12 dead included five killed elsewhere while conducting clandestine assignments in recent years. Their identities remain secret. The CIA has not officially released any of the 12 names.

With the new additions, the Memorial Wall has 102 stars designating officers and contract employees killed on the job since 1947. A leather-bound volume beneath the display lists 62 names; the 40 others are denoted only by a gold star and a blank space.

Matthews is among the few agency women to be killed on duty. Fellow officers remembered her as a passionate analyst, among the first to specialize in the study of an obscure group of pan-Arab terrorists who called themselves "the Base," or al-Qaeda.

"She was one of the most deeply substantive experts we ever had on the subject," said a former senior intelligence official who worked closely with her.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the agency had not formally released the officer's name, described as her defining feature an "agile mind, always willing to open a door and look at it in a different way."

Matthews had worked in the Osama bin Laden unit, known as Alec Station, and also served a brief stint in London.

Although colleagues said she was deeply knowledgeable about al-Qaeda and its allies, they said she had little experience in CIA operations overseas when she was tapped to become chief of the agency's Forward Operating Base Chapman, a small, heavily fortified compound near the town of Khost, on Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan. The base plays a key role in agency efforts to locate terrorist training camps and safe houses in the border region that can targeted by the CIA's unmanned aircraft.

Several former CIA officials have publicly faulted the agency for not appointing a more seasoned officer to run a front-line post in the war against al-Qaeda. An internal CIA review is examining whether experience was a factor in the decision by agency officers to allow the bomber into a part of the base where he could come in close contact with multiple operatives at once.

Agency officials have rejected such criticism.

"The outcomes of complex operations aren't determined by a single individual, and it would be untrue and unfair to suggest otherwise," said one intelligence official familiar with the agency's internal probe.

In addition to Matthews and LaBonte, the Dec. 30 bombing claimed the lives of three CIA officers: Elizabeth Hanson, 31, an analyst; Harold Brown Jr., a retired Army officer from Fairfax; and Scott Michael Roberson, a former narcotics officer from Atlanta. Also killed were security contractors Jeremy Wise, a former Navy SEAL from Virginia Beach, and Dane Clark Paresi, a former Special Forces soldier from Dupont, Wash.

A Jordanian intelligence officer, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, also died in the attack, along with an Afghan driver.

The bomber, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, was a Jordanian physician and double agent who had been providing U.S. intelligence officials with detailed information about Taliban and al-Qaeda operations in the border region. Agency officials arranged a meeting with Balawi at the Khost base after the Jordanian claimed to have to new information on the whereabouts of bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Staff researcher Julie Tate and staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

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